Responses to Industrial Imperialism

The anti-imperialist vegetable

From the nineteenth century, colonized peoples—mostly peasants—couldn't fight the colonizers militarily, but there were other ways to resist, including through food.

Colonial states relied on income from fixed farming areas. By using the forced labor of indigenous people that stayed in one place, production costs stayed low and they could increase profits.

But those local populations didn’t sit still. They only needed enough food for themselves. Indigenous people sometimes migrated and changed their farming patterns to evade colonial oppression.

Now look at some different ways people responded to imperialism.

Anti-imperialism before decolonization

European imperialism in southeast Asia disrupted lives and societies. Colonizers controlled wealth, status, and survival. But the people of the colonies had some ability to shape their own lives and to preserve their dignity and culture. These case studies show how some communities in Southeast Asia responded to the new, industrial imperialism that began in the late nineteenth century.

French Indochina

French Indochina was the colonial name for French-occupied areas that included the places now called Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Conquering a territory is not the same as controlling it. The French encountered constant uprisings, an obvious form of resistance. Yet most people just tried to survive and thrive within a difficult system.

For example, many Laotian villagers pretended to collaborate. The French believed they were using local leaders to control villages, but the villages often provided fake leaders who had no real power. The real leaders secretly ran matters according Laotian interests, without the French knowing.

Some minority groups, like the small Christian population, saw French rule as a way to get ahead, especially by enlisting into the military. Others felt so oppressed by colonial rule that they fled to the mountains, out of reach of the imperial government. Their deep local knowledge of the environment was an advantage over the French.

The French educated Southeast Asians, hoping they would embrace French values and culture. This education gave many indigenous peoples intellectual tools to resist French imperialism.

Dutch East Indies

In Java the Dutch tried to recruit aristocrats as leaders. These aristocrats accepted Dutch political rule, but got to keep some wealth and their culture. Other people, including those of lower social status, could gain some political rights in various ways. Many learned to speak Dutch, converted to Christianity, or adopted Dutch customs. These are examples of accommodation, where people adapt to colonial rule and even benefit from it, without entirely giving up their own culture or values.

Religious and spiritual beliefs helped people subtly resist colonial rule. There was a large revival of Islam and there were local systems of belief that centered on mystics. These religions celebrated a higher authority than the colonial government.

The southeast Asian highlands

The British pushed into Burma, Malaya, and Borneo, but they had trouble controlling these people living in the hilly regions of Southeast Asia. These communities were highly mobile and spread across a region the size of Europe! These communities were more nomadic and loosely organized, helping them move around to avoid taxation and forced labor.

Colonizers found it hard to enlist local leaders to work for them. The British tried to employ the local custom of community gatherings around elaborate feasts, where resources and political concerns were exchanged. The locals resisted by simply not showing up.

Creative resistance

Colonized people found other ways to express their attitudes. For example, they would cause accidents by tripping British colonizers. They often created secret channels using special language codes or satire to share their feelings of dissent. Indeed, colonized people often expressed themselves in ways that weren't easily understood by colonial powers.

Source: Responses to Industrial Imperialism
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